Stress is an everyday occurrence--and not all stress is bad. If you feel stress about an upcoming test, you study. If you are feeling tension about an argument with your friend, you make an effort to resolve the conflict. When the stress in our lives overwhelms our ability to cope for a prolonged period, however, we cross into the realm of chronic stress, which can lead to a variety of physical, mental and emotional symptoms.
Headache is a common symptom of chronic stress. The link between stress and headache is so well established that there’s even a name for it: tension-type headache. In a 2009 review article, neurologist Dr. Yaniv Chen reported on the incidence of stress-related headaches, stating, “Tension-type headache is the most common and most socioeconomically costly headache.” In addition to its role in tension-type headaches, stress has also been implicated as a trigger for migraine headaches in people who are predisposed to that condition.
The brain-gut axis describes an extensive network of bidirectional connections between the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system) and the nerve pathways of the gastrointestinal system. It has been established that psychological stress is a major factor in both irritable bowel syndrome and functional gastrointestinal disorders. It is clear from these links that psychological distress can and does affect the gastrointestinal system. Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of abdominal distress symptoms, including stomach upset, abdominal pain, overeating and loss of appetite.
The Mayo Clinic notes that chest pain and heart palpitations (being aware of your heart beating rapidly, irregularly or excessively hard) can be symptoms of chronic stress. The reality and possible severity of these symptoms is demonstrated by what has been called “the broken heart syndrome,” wherein the lower chambers of the heart actually change shape temporarily in response to severe emotional or psychological distress. The syndrome mimics the symptoms of a heart attack.
Anxiety is another common symptom of chronic stress. It may be accompanied by closely related symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, anger, forgetfulness and inattention.
Chronic stress has been associated with sleep disturbances, which can take a variety of forms. Difficulty falling asleep, fitful sleep, awakening during the night and early awakening are possible symptoms of chronic stress.